While it’s impossible to know what the future holds, the 2020 NFL season looks set to kick off as scheduled. It’s not completely smooth sailing, though. Due to local regulations, some teams will be playing in empty stadiums, while others will have a limited amount of fans in the stands. Some coaches have speculated that reality will give teams an unfair advantage. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, however, isn’t too concerned about those claims.
In a recent interview, Jerry Jones said that the NFL’s current attendance policy is “fair.” The Cowboys owner’s claims may be wrong, but not for the reason you’d think.
The 2020 NFL season will be a bit different due to COVID-19
In the world of American sports, the NFL usually seems like an unstoppable giant, capable of doing whatever it wants. COVID-19, however, doesn’t care about commercial or pop-cultural power.
While the 2020 regular season is yet to begin, the league has already been forced to make some notable changes. In April, the annual entry draft was transformed into an all-virtual affair. Since then, preseason games have been canceled, training camp rosters have been trimmed, and some players have opted-out of the 2020 campaign.
The most obvious changes, however, will be plain to see when games begin this fall. Even if fans are allowed into stadiums, you won’t be seeing a full house anytime soon.
Unlike other leagues, though, the NFL hasn’t adopted a uniform attendance policy. As charted by Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports, every team can set their own rules, provided that they’re following local guidelines. Some clubs won’t have any fans during the entirety of the campaign; others are starting behind closed doors and hoping to let fans in later in the season, while a third group will welcoming a limited number of fans into the building beginning in Week 1.
Jerry Jones doesn’t think in-person fans will give the Cowboys an unfair advantage
In the lead-up to the 2020 NFL season, some, like Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott, have questioned the fairness of allowing some teams to play in front of live fans while others cannot. Jerry Jones, however, isn’t concerned about any potential advantages.
“Absolutely (it’s fair),” Jones said in a recent appearance on 105.3 The Fan “The benefit of crowds are important to sports. On the other hand, is it possible to have great games without it … you saw one the other night in basketball. But it’s fair. We’ve made up our minds this thing isn’t going to be one way or another. Surely, about evening up everything that could be competitive, you’ve got to have to adapt to the virus. Attendance being one of them.”
As you might guess from his sentiments, Jones has previously said that the Dallas Cowboys will allow fans into AT&T Stadium this season.
Jerry Jones is probably wrong, but not for the obvious reason
Ultimately, we don’t know how much of a difference the NFL’s lack of a uniform attendance policy will affect the 2020 campaign. If other sports are anything to go by, though, Jerry Jones might be wrong for a surprising reason.
While standard logic would suggest that teams like the Dallas Cowboys, who have fans in the stands, would have a home-field advantage, that might not actually be the case. According to Ben Cohen and Joshua Robinson of the Wall Street Journal, NBA and European soccer players have actually shot the ball better behind closed doors. That would make the 2020 NFL season unfair but tilt the balance away from teams with open stadiums.
Although there some potential questions remain—did NBA players, for example, shoot better because the worse teams didn’t even enter the bubble—there does seem to be some logic to improved performances without fans. While players can still yell and talk trash, there’s less of a visual distraction; you’re not seeing hundreds of bodies behind the goal when you’re taking a shot. Similarly, there’s less external pressure. Even at home, unhappy fans can turn up the heat on their own players.
“When they play in front of 80,000 people,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta simply said, “it is much more difficult.”
At this point, we’ll just have to see how NFL teams perform in an empty stadium, as well as in partially-filled ones. Until then, you can decide whether Jerry Jones is right or wrong about the fairness of the 2020 NFL season.